“I contradict myself/I am large, I contain multitudes.” So wrote our great American poet, Walt Whitman. James A. Morone’s new collection of essays, The Devils We Know, reflects Whitman’s spirit in contemplating the raucous, contrapuntal nature of American political culture (and two of the 14 essays invoke the quotation).
In the opening essay, “Is There an American Political Culture?,” Morone identifies four strands of the American ethos: individualism, reflected in Louis Hartz’s famous elaboration of the American liberal tradition; communitarianism and what Morone calls the “search for social capital” (p. 21); ascriptive, or us-versus-them politics; and the morality tradition, embodied in the utopian puritanical idea of a “city on a hill.” Morone argues that American culture is all of these strands. We Americans have not forged anything like a consensus about how to live together.
Morone makes his own sympathies clear enough. In his final chapter, reflecting on “Who We Are?” in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, Morone delights in what he found while attending a parade: “every language, every color, every nationality,” reflective of what has always been an ever-changing “raucous, vibrant and evolving culture” (p. 208).
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